Christian History Home > 2008 > August > Still Fighting Over Nicaea
Still Fighting Over Nicaea
The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons.
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The 38 provincial heads of the Anglican Communion meet next week in Northern Ireland for "careful study of the Windsor Report," the recommendations issued last October on the future of Anglican unity amid deep divisions over theology, ethics, and practice.
Anglicans and religion journalists, however, are getting tired. The resolution of each meeting of Anglican leaders seems to be, "just wait until the next meeting." Though some orthodox and conservative Anglicans are hopeful that leaders from southern provinces, especially in Africa, will stand firmly against North American theological liberalism and sexual libertinism, few are expecting anything decisive. This isn't being billed as the Anglican Council of Nicaea.
Not that the Council of Nicaea was as decisive as it is usually billed, either. It took almost 60 years for Nicaea's influence to solidify. In the meantime, the main heresy condemned at the council, Arianism, became ascendant and almost triumphed over orthodoxy. Even the Nicene Creed recited today wasn't really adopted until 381, 56 years after the council ended.
The Council of Nicaea was not, as Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown has convinced scores of readers, the place where the church made up the ideas of Jesus' divinity and the infallibility of Scripture, but it still stands as one of the biggest moments in church history (which is why Christian History & Biography has devoted its next issue to the council; click here if you don't already subscribe).
A few Anglican leaders have made a habit of systematically denying each line of the Nicene Creed, but most Anglicans revere the council as authoritative. So it was no throwaway comment when the Windsor Report made direct reference to the council's canons (rules or standards) in issuing its evaluation. But the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which issued the Windsor Report, didn't invoke Nicaea to talk about heretical priests and bishops in the West. Instead, the canons appeared in a discussion of how some orthodox parishes have responded to their own apostate leaders by seeking outside oversight:
Some Archbishops from elsewhere in the Communion have, both by taking initiatives, and by responding to invitations from clergy purporting to place themselves under their jurisdictions, entered parts of the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada and exercised episcopal functions without the consent of the relevant diocesan bishop. This goes not only against traditional and often-repeated Anglican practice … but also against some of the longest-standing regulations of the early undivided church (Canon 8 of Nicaea). These actions are not purely reactions to recent events, though that has been their main character. In some cases they build on earlier attempts at unilateral action against bishops whose theology and/or practice was perceived to be out of line with traditional Anglican and Christian teaching, or even to set up would-be "orthodox" structures or "mission churches" for their own sake, e.g. the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA).
Conservatives were aghast that the Lambeth Commission treated orthodox leaders offering "captionernative oversight" as akin to blessing same-sex unions and ordaining actively homosexual bishops in terms of disrupting church unity. But even the evangelicals on the commission stood by the claim. Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright, whose orthodox credentials are impeccable, told Christianity Today:
The important thing to say is that border crossings are disruptive. Not only are they against the spirit and the letter of Anglican formularies, they are against one of the decrees of the Council of Nicaea, as we point out. And I think not a lot of people know this, but it's important to say this was a question that the early fathers faced at the same time as they were hammering out the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ, and that they gave it their time to say people should not do this because that's not how episcopacy works.
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